At the heart of the lower levels, in an immense cavern of uneven and twisting walls pocketed with deep shadows, and a ceiling too high for the light of the brightest fire to find, rested the present ruler of Mithril Hall, perched upon a solid pedestal of the purest mithril that rose from a high and wide mound of coins and jewelry, goblets and weapons, and countless other items pounded from the rough blocks of mithril by the skilled hands of dwarven craftsmen.
Dark shapes surrounded the beast, huge dogs from its own world, obedient, long-lived, and hungry for the meat of human or elf, or anything else that would give them the pleasure of their gory sport before the kill.
Shimmergloom was not now amused.
Rumblings from above foretold of intruders, and a band of Duergar spoke of murdered kin in the tunnels and whispered rumors that a drow elf had been seen.
The dragon was not of this world. It had come from the Plane of Shadows, a dark image of the lighted world, unknown to the dwellers here except in the less substantial stuff of their blackest nightmares. Shimmergloom had been of considerable standing there, old even then, and in high regard among its dragon kin that ruled the plane. But when the foolish and greedy dwarves that once inhabited these mines had delved into deep holes of sufficient darkness to open a gate to its plane, the dragon had been quick to come through. Now possessing a treasure tenfold beyond the greatest of its own plane, Shimmergloom had no intentions of returning.
It would deal with the intruders.
For the first time since the routing of Clan Battlehammer, the baying of the shadow hounds filled the tunnels, striking dread even into the hearts of their gray dwarf handlers. The dragon sent them west on their mission, up toward the tunnels around the entry hall in Keeper’s Dale, where the companions had first entered the complex. With their powerful maws and incredible stealth, the hounds were indeed a deadly force, but their mission now was not to catch and kill – only to herd.
In the first fight for Mithril Hall, Shimmergloom alone had routed the miners in the lower caverns and in some of the huge chambers on the eastern end of the upper level. But final victory had escaped the dragon, for the end had come in the western corridors, too tight for its scaly bulk.
The beast would not miss the glory again. It set its minions in motion, to drive whoever or whatever had come into the halls toward the only entrance that it had to the upper levels: Garumn’s Gorge.
Shimmergloom stretched to the limit of its height and unfolded its leathery wings for the first time in nearly two hundred years, blackness flowing out under them as they extended to the sides. Those Duergar who had remained in the throne room fell to their knees at the sight of their rising lord, partly in respect, but mostly in fear.
The dragon was gone, gliding down a secret tunnel at the back of the chamber, to where it had once known glory, the place its minions had named Shimmergloom’s Run in praise of their lord.
A blur of indistinguishable darkness, it moved as silently as the cloud of blackness that followed.
* * *
Wulfgar worried just how low he would be crouching by the time they reached Garumn’s Gorge, for the tunnels became dwarven sized as they neared the eastern end of the upper level. Bruenor knew this as a good sign, the only tunnels in the complex with ceilings below the six foot mark were those of the deepest mines and those crafted for defense of the gorge.
Faster than Bruenor had hoped, they came upon the secret door to a smaller tunnel breaking off to the left, a spot familiar to the dwarf even after his two-century absence. He ran his hand across the unremarkable wall beneath the torch and its telltale red sconce, searching for the brailed pattern that would lead his fingers to the precise spot. He found one triangle, then another, and followed their lines to the central point, the bottommost point in the valley between the peaks of the twin-mountains that they signified, the symbol of Dumathoin, the Keeper of Secrets Under the Mountain. Bruenor pushed with a single finger, and the wall fell away, opening yet another low tunnel. No light came from this one, but a hollow sound, like the wind across a rock face, greeted them.
Bruenor winked at them knowingly and started right in, but slowed when he saw the runes and sculpted reliefs carved into the walls. All along the passage, on every surface, dwarven artisans had left their mark. Bruenor swelled with pride, despite his depression, when he saw the admiring expressions upon his friends’ faces.
A few turns later they came upon a portcullis, lowered and rusted, and beyond it saw the wideness of another huge cavern.
“Garumn’s Gorge,” Bruenor proclaimed, moving up to the iron bars. “‘Tis said ye can throw a torch off the rim and it’ll burn out afore ever it hits.”
Four sets of eyes looked through the gate in wonder. If the journey through Mithril Hall had been a disappointment to them, for they had not yet seen the grander sights Bruenor had often told them of, the sight before them now made up for it. They had reached Garumn’s Gorge, though it seemed more a full-sized canyon than a gorge, spanning hundreds of feet across and stretching beyond the limits of their sight. They were above the floor of the chamber, with a stairway running down to the right on the other site of the portcullis. Straining to poke as much of their heads as they could through the bars, they could see the light of another room at the base of the stairs, and hear clearly the ruckus of several Duergar.
To the left, the wall arced around to the edge, though the chasm continued on beyond the bordering wall of the cavern. A single bridge spanned the break, an ancient work of stone fitted so perfectly that its slight arch could still support an army of the hugest mountain giants.
Bruenor studied the bridge carefully, noting that something about its understructure did not seem quite right. He followed the line of a cable across the chasm, figuring it to continue under the stone flooring and connect to a large lever sticking up from a more recently constructed platform across the way. Two Duergar sentries milled about the lever, though their lax attitude spoke of countless days of boredom.
“They’ve rigged the thing to fall!” Bruenor snorted.
The others immediately understood what he was talking about. “Is there another way across, then?” Catti-brie asked.
“Aye,” replied the dwarf. “A ledge to the south end of the gorge. But hours o’ walking, and the only way to it is through this cavern!”
Wulfgar grasped the iron bars of the portcullis and tested them. They held fast, as he suspected. “We could not get through these bars, anyway,” he put in. “Unless you know where we might find their crank.”
“Half a day’s walking,” Bruenor replied, as though the answer, perfectly logical to the mindset of a dwarf protecting his treasures, should have been obvious. “The other way.”
“Fretful folk,” Regis said under his breath.
Catching the remark, Bruenor growled and grabbed Regis by the collar, hoisting him from the ground and pressing their faces together. “Me people are a careful lot,” he snarled, his own frustration and confusion boiling out again in his misdirected rage. “We like to keep what’s our own to keep, especially from little thieves with little fingers and big mouths.”
“Suren there’s another way in,” Catti-brie reasoned, quick to diffuse the confrontation.
Bruenor dropped the halfling to the floor. “We can get to that room,” he replied, indicating the lighted area at the base of the stairs.
“Then let’s be quick,” Catti-brie demanded. “If the noise of the cave-in called out alarms, the word might not have reached this far.”
Bruenor led them back down the small tunnel swiftly, and back to the corridor behind the secret door.
Around the next bend in the main corridor, its walls, too, showing the runes and sculpted reliefs of the dwarven craftsmen, Bruenor was again engulfed in the wonder of his heritage and quickly lost all thoughts of anger at Regis. He heard again in his mind the ringing of hammers in Garumn’s day, and the singing of common gatherings. If the foulness that they had found here, and the loss of Drizzt, had tempered his fervent desire to reclaim Mithril Hall, the vivid recollections that assaulted him as he moved along this corridor worked to refuel those fires.
Perhaps he would return with his army, he thought. Perhaps the mithril would again ring out in the smithies of Clan Battlehammer.
Thoughts of regaining his people’s glory suddenly rekindled, Bruenor looked around to his friends, tired, hungry, and grieving for the drow, and reminded himself that the mission before him now was to escape the complex and get them back to safety.
A more intense glow ahead signaled the end of the tunnel. Bruenor slowed their pace and crept along to the exit cautiously. Again the companions found themselves on a stone balcony, overlooking yet another corridor, a huge passageway, nearly a chamber in itself, with a high ceiling and decorated walls. Torches burned every few feet along both sides, running parallel below them.
A lump welled in Bruenor’s throat when he looked upon the carvings lining the opposite wall across the way, great sculpted bas reliefs of Garumn and Bangor, and of all the patriarchs of Clan Battlehammer. He wondered, and not for the first time, if his own bust would ever take its place alongside his ancestors’.
“Half-a-dozen to ten, I make them,” Catti-brie whispered, more intent on the clamor rolling out of a partly opened door down to the left, the room they had seen from their perch in the chamber of the gorge. The companions were fully twenty feet above the floor of the larger corridor. To the right, a stairway descended to the floor, and beyond it the tunnel wound its way back into the great halls.
“Side rooms where others might be hiding?” Wulfgar asked Bruenor.
The dwarf shook his head. “One anteroom there be, and only one,” he answered. “But more rooms lay within the cavern of Garumn’s Gorge. Whether they be filled with gray ones or no, we cannot know. But no mind to them; we’re to get through this room, and through the door across its way to come to the gorge.”
Wulfgar slapped his hammer into a fighting grip. “Then let us go,” he growled, starting for the stair.
“What about the two in the cavern beyond?” asked Regis, staying the anxious warrior with his hand.
“They’ll drop the bridge afore we ever make the gorge,” added Catti-brie.
Bruenor scratched his beard, then looked to his daughter. “How well do ye shoot?” he asked her.
Catti-brie held the magical bow out before her. “Well enough to take the likes of two sentries!” she answered.
“Back to th’ other tunnel with ye,” said Bruenor. “At first sound of battle, take ’em out. And be fast, girl; the cowardly scum’re likely to drop the bridge at the first signs of trouble!”
With a nod, she was gone. Wulfgar watched her disappear back down the corridor, not so determined to have this fight now, without knowing that Catti-brie would be safe behind him. “What if the gray ones have reinforcements near?” he asked Bruenor. “What of Catti-brie? She will be blocked from returning to us.”
“No whinin’, boy!” Bruenor snapped, also uncomfortable with his decision to separate. “Y’er heart’s for her is me guess, though ye aren’t to admit it to yerself. Keep in yer head that Cat’s a fighter, trained by meself. The other tunnel’s safe enough, still secret from the gray ones by all the signs I could find. The girl’s battle-smart to taking care of herself! So put yer thoughts to the fight before ye. The best ye can do for her is to finish these gray-bearded dogs too quick for their kin to come!”
It took some effort, but Wulfgar tore his eyes away from the corridor and refocused his gaze on the open door below, readying himself for the task at hand.
Alone now, Catti-brie quietly trotted back the short distance down the corridor and disappeared through the secret door.
* * *
“Hold!” Sydney commanded Bok, and she, too, froze in her tracks, sensing that someone was just ahead. She crept forward, the golem on her heel, and peeked around the next turn in the tunnel, expecting that she had come up on the companions. There was only empty corridor in front of her.
The secret door had closed.
* * *
Wulfgar took a deep breath and measured the odds. If Catti-brie’s estimate was correct, he and Bruenor would be outnumbered several times when they burst through the door. He knew that they had no options open before them. With another breath to steady himself, he started again down the stairs, Bruenor moving on his cue and Regis following tentatively behind.
The barbarian never slowed his long strides, or turned from the straightest path to the door, yet the first sounds that they all heard were not the thumps of Aegis-fang or the barbarian’s customary war cry to Tempos, but the battle song of Bruenor Battlehammer.
This was his homeland and his fight, and the dwarf placed the responsibility for the safety of his companions squarely upon his own shoulders. He dashed by Wulfgar when they reached the bottom of the stairs and crashed through the door, the mithril axe of his heroic namesake raised before him.
“This one’s for me father!” he cried, splitting the shining helm of the closest Duergar with a single stroke. “This one’s for me father’s father!” he yelled, felling the second. “And this one’s for me father’s father’s father!”
Bruenor’s ancestral line was long indeed. The gray dwarves never had a chance.
Wulfgar had started his charge right after he realized Bruenor was rushing by him, but by the time he got into the room, three Duergar lay dead and the furious Bruenor was about to drop the fourth. Six others scrambled around trying to recover from the savage assault, and mostly trying to get out the other door and into the cavern of the gorge where they could regroup. Wulfgar hurled Aegis-fang – and took another, and Bruenor pounced upon his fifth victim before the gray dwarf got through the portal.
Across the gorge, the two sentries heard the start of battle at the same time as Catti-brie, but not understanding what was happening, they hesitated.
A streak of silver flashed across the chasm, exploding into the chest of one of the sentries, its powerful magic blasting through his mithril armor and hurling him back ward into death.
The second lunged immediately for the lever, but Catti-brie coolly completed her business. The second streaking arrow took him in the eye.
The routed dwarves in the room below poured out into the cavern below her, and others from rooms beyond the first charged out to join them. Wulfgar and Bruenor would come through soon, too, Catti-brie knew, right into the midst of a ready host!
Bruenor’s evaluation of Catti-brie had been on target. A fighter she was, and as willing to stand against the odds as any warrior alive. She buried any fears that she might have had for her friends and positioned herself to be of greatest assistance to them. Eyes and jaw steeled in determination, she took up Taulmaril and launched a barrage of death at the assembling host that put them into chaos and sent many of them scrambling for cover.
Bruenor roared out, blood-spattered, his mithril axe red from kills, and still with a hundred great-great ancestors as yet unavenged. Wulfgar was right behind, consumed by the blood lust, singing to his war god, and swatting aside his smaller enemies as easily as he would part ferns on a forest path.
Catti-brie’s barrage did not relent, arrow after streaking arrow finding its deadly mark. The warrior within her possessed her fully and her actions stayed on the edges of her conscious thoughts. Methodically, she called for another arrow, and the magical quiver of Anariel obliged. Taulmaril played its own song, and in the wake of its notes lay the scorched and blasted bodies of many Duergar.
Regis hung back throughout the fight, knowing that he would be more trouble than use to his friends in the main fray, just adding one more body for them to protect when they already had all they could handle in looking out for themselves. He saw that Bruenor and Wulfgar had gained enough of an early advantage to claim victory, even against the many enemies that had come into the cavern to face them, so Regis worked to make sure their fallen opponents in the room were truly down and would not come sneaking up behind.
Also, though, to make sure that any valuables these gray ones possessed were not wasted on corpses.
He heard the heavy thump of a boot behind him. He dove aside and rolled to the corner just as Bok crashed through the doorway, oblivious to his presence. When Regis recovered his voice, he moved to yell a warning to his friends.
But then Sydney entered the room.
Two at a time fell before the sweeps of Wulfgar’s warhammer. Spurred by the snatches that he caught of the enraged dwarf’s battle cries, “…for me father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s…” Wulfgar wore a grim smile as he moved through the Duergar’s disorganized ranks. Arrows burned lines of silver right beside him as they sought their victims, but he trusted enough in Catti-brie not to fear a stray shot. His muscles flexed in another crushing blow, even the Duergar’s shining armor offering no protection against his brute strength.
But then arms stronger than his own caught him from behind.
The few Duergar that remained before him did not recognize Bok as an ally. They fled in terror to the chasm bridge, hoping to cross and destroy the route of any pursuit behind them.
Catti-brie cut them down.
Regis didn’t make any sudden moves, knowing Sydney’s power from the encounter back in the oval room. Her bolt of energy had flattened both Bruenor and Wulfgar; the halfling shuddered to think what it could do to him.
His only chance was the ruby pendant, he thought. If he could get Sydney caught in its hypnotizing spell, he might hold her long enough for his friends to return.
Slowly, he moved his hand under his jacket, his eyes trained upon the mage, wary for the beginnings of any killing bolt.
Sydney’s wand remained tucked into her belt. She had a trick of her own planned for the little one. She muttered a quick chant, then rolled her hand open to Regis and puffed gently, launching a filmy string in his direction.
Regis understood the spell’s nature when the air around him was suddenly saturated with floating webs – sticky spiders’ webs. They clung to every part of him, slowing his movements, and filled the area around him. He had his hand around the magical pendant, but the web had him fully within its own grip.
Pleased in the exercising of her power, Sydney turned to the door and the battle beyond. She preferred calling upon the powers within her, but understood the strength of these other enemies, and drew her wand.
Bruenor finished the last of the gray dwarves facing him. He had taken many hits, some serious, and much of the blood covering him was his own. The rage within him that he had built over the course of centuries, though, blinded him to the pain. His blood lust was sated now, but only until he turned back toward the anteroom and saw Bok lifting Wulfgar high into the air and crushing the life out of him.
Catti-brie saw it, too. Horrified, she tried to get a clear shot at the golem, but with Wulfgar’s desperate struggling, the combatants stumbled about too often for her to dare. “Help him!” she begged to Bruenor under her breath, as all that she could do was watch.
Half of Wulfgar’s body was numbed under the incredible force of Bok’s magically strengthened arms. He did manage to squirm around and face his foe, though, and he put a hand in-the golem’s eye and pushed with all his strength, trying to divert some of the monster’s energy from the attack.
Bok seemed not to notice.
Wulfgar slammed Aegis-fang into the monster’s face with all the force he could muster under the tight circumstances, still a blow that would have felled a giant.
Again Bok seemed not to notice.
The arms closed relentlessly. A wave of dizziness swept through the barbarian. His fingers tingled with numbness. His hammer dropped to the ground.
Bruenor was almost there, axe poised and ready to begin chopping. But as the dwarf passed the open door to the anteroom, a blinding flash of energy shot out at him. It struck his shield, luckily, and deflected up to the cavern ceiling, but the sheer force of it hurled Bruenor from his feet. He shook his head in disbelief and struggled to a sitting position.
Catti-brie saw the bolt and remembered the similar blast that had dropped both Bruenor and Wulfgar back in the oval room. Instinctively, without the slightest hesitation or concern for her own safety, she was off, running back down the passageway, driven by the knowledge that if she couldn’t get to the mage, her friends didn’t have a chance.
Bruenor was more prepared for the second bolt. He saw Sydney inside the anteroom lift the wand at him. He dove on his belly and threw his shield above his head, facing the mage. It held again against the blast, deflecting the energy harmlessly away, but Bruenor felt it weaken under the impact and knew that it would not withstand another.
The stubborn survival instincts of the barbarian brought his drifting mind from the swoon and back into focus on the battle. He didn’t call for his hammer, knowing it to be of little use against the golem and doubting that he could have clasped it anyway. He summoned his own strength, wrapping his huge arms around Bok’s neck. His corded muscles tensed to their limits and ripped beyond as he struggled. No breath would come to him; Bruenor would not get there in time. He growled away the pain and the fear, grimaced through the sensations of numbness.
And twisted with all his might.
Regis at last managed to get his hand and the pendant out from under his jacket. “Wait, mage!” he cried at Sydney, not expecting her to listen, but only hoping to divert her attention long enough for her to glimpse the gemstone, and praying that Entreri had not informed her of its hypnotizing powers.
Again the mistrust and secrecy of the evil party worked against them. Oblivious to the dangers of the halfling’s ruby, Sydney glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, more to ensure that her web still held him tightly than to listen to any words he might have to say.
A sparkle of red-light caught her attention more fully than she had intended, and long moments passed before she would look away.
In the main passage, Catti-brie crouched low and sped along as swiftly as she could. Then she heard the baying.
The hunting shadow hounds filled the corridors with their excited cries, and filled Catti-brie with dread. The hounds were far behind, but her knees went weak as the unearthly sound descended upon her, echoing from wall to wall and encasing her in a dizzying jumble. She gritted her teeth against the assault and pressed on. Bruenor needed her, Wulfgar needed her. She would not fail them.
She made the balcony and sprinted down the stairs, finding the door to the anteroom closed. Cursing the luck, for she had hoped to get a shot at the mage from a distance, she slung Taulmaril over her shoulder, drew her sword, and boldly, blindly, charged through.
* * *
Locked in a killing embrace, Wulfgar and Bok stumbled around the cavern, sometimes dangerously close to the gorge. The barbarian matched his muscle against Dendybar’s magical work; never before had he faced such a foe. Wildly, he jerked Bok’s massive head back and forth, breaking the monster’s ability to resist. Then he began turning it in one direction, driving on with every ounce of power that he had left to give. He couldn’t remember the last time he had found a breath; he no longer knew who he was, or where he was.
His sheer stubbornness refused to yield.
He heard the snap of bone, and couldn’t be sure if it had been his own spine or the golem’s neck. Bok never flinched, nor loosened its vicelike grip. The head turned easily now, and Wulfgar, driven on by the final darkness that began its descent upon him, tugged and turned in a final flurry of defiance.
Skin ripped away. The blood-stuff of the wizard’s creation poured onto Wulfgar’s arms and chest, and the head tore free. Wulfgar, to his own amazement, thought that he had won.
Bok seemed not to notice.
* * *
The beginnings of the ruby pendant’s hypnotizing spell shattered when the door crashed in, but Regis had played his part. By the time Sydney recognized the coming danger, Catti-brie was too close for her to cast her spells.
Sydney’s gaze locked into a stunned, wide-eyed stare of confused protest. All of her dreams and future plans fell before her in that one instant. She tried to scream out a denial, certain that the gods of fate had a more important role planned for her in their scheme of the universe, convinced that they would not allow the shining star of her budding power to be extinguished before it ever came to its potential.
But a thin, wooden wand is of little use in parrying a metal blade.
Catti-brie saw nothing but her target, felt nothing in that instant but the necessity of her duty. Her sword snapped through the feeble wand and plunged home.
She looked at Sydney’s face for the first time. Time itself seemed to halt.
Sydney’s expression had not changed, her eyes and mouth still open in denial of this possibility.
Catti-brie watched in helpless horror as the last flickers of hope and ambition faded from Sydney’s eyes. Warm blood gushed over Catti-brie’s arm. Sydney’s final gasp of breath seemed impossibly loud.
And Sydney slid, ever so slowly, from the blade and into the realm of death.
* * *
A single, vicious cut from the mithril axe severed one of Bok’s arms, and Wulfgar fell free. He landed on one knee, barely on the edge of consciousness. His huge lungs reflexively sucked in a volume of revitalizing oxygen.
Sensing the dwarf’s presence clearly, but without eyes to focus upon its target, the headless golem lunged confusedly at Bruenor and missed badly.
Bruenor had no understanding of the magical forces that guided the monster, or kept it alive, and he had little desire to test his fighting skills against it. He saw another way. “Come on, ye filthy mold of orc-dung,” he teased, moving toward the gorge. In a more serious tone, he called to Wulfgar, “Get yer hammer ready, boy.”
Bruenor had to repeat the request over and over, and by the time Wulfgar began to hear it, Bok had backed the dwarf right up to the ledge.
Only half aware of his actions, Wulfgar found the warhammer returned to his hand.
Bruenor stopped, his heels clear of the stone floor, a smile on his face that accepted death. The golem paused, too, somehow understanding that Bruenor had nowhere left to run.
Bruenor dropped to the floor as Bok lunged forward, Aegis-fang slammed into its back, pushing it over the dwarf. The monster fell silently, with no ears to hear the sound of the air rushing past.
Catti-brie was still standing motionless over the mage’s body when Wulfgar and Bruenor entered the anteroom. Sydney’s eyes and mouth remained open in silent denial, a futile attempt to belie the pool of blood that deepened around her body.
Lines of tears wetted Catti-brie’s face. She had felled goblinoids and gray dwarves, once an ogre and a tundra yeti, but never before had she killed a human. Never before had she looked into eyes akin to her own and watched the light leave them. Never before had she understood the complexity of her victim, or even that the life she had taken existed outside the present field of battle.
Wulfgar moved to her and embraced her in full sympathy while Bruenor cut the halfling free of the remaining strands of webbing.
The dwarf had trained Catti-brie to fight and had reveled in her victories against orcs and the like, foul beasts that deserved death by all accounts. He had always hoped, though, that his beloved Catti-brie would be spared this experience.
Again Mithril Hall loomed as the source of his friends’ suffering.
Distant howls echoed from beyond the open door behind them. Catti-brie slid the sword into its sheath, not even thinking to wipe the blood from it, and steadied herself. “The pursuit is not ended,” she stated flatly. “It is past time we leave.”
She led them from the room then, but left a part of herself, the pedestal of her innocence, behind.